Tag Archives: open government

The OK Cast Shares the Open Systems Message – and Spirit!

To know Alex Fink, even a bit, is to want to share his ideas, his spirit and his work – specifically his amazingly energetic podcast series.  The challenge is to do justice to his work!  So I’m just going to focus on the podcast – an exemplary application of a format with which I am enamored.

Alex Fink is a PhD student in Youth Studies at the University of Minnesota.  His focus is on “methods of making research to document injustice and resistance available to young people to create social change.”  My first brush with Alex’s thoughts was in notes re. social justice he posted on the Code for America/Open Twin Cities  listserv.

Next I learned about his newish podcast venture, a one-person operation in which he explores the range of open information/data issues – “the political economy and ecology of data, including data collection, data use, data access/sharing, data economics, and the ideologies surrounding it.”  In other words, Alex is actually putting a face on open data and open government.

To wit:  The OK Cast (as in Open Knowledge) is a bi-weekly podcast, of which Alex serves as both host and editor. The growing list of podcast topics now includes sessions on global integrity, participatory politics, visualizing information, the possibilities and practice of open planning – and more.

Backing up the podcast is the OK Cast blog, presented “with the goal to explore, connect, use and inspire open knowledge projects around the world to develop the public commons, improve organization and government transparency and communication, and advocate for social justice and social activism.”  It almost goes without saying that Alex is readily accessible on Twitter @TheOKCast

Make no small plans, is a motto that befits the work of Alex Fink.  My hope is that those who care about open government, broadly defined, will check out the visually stimulating blog and the aurally enlightening podcasts that this one visionary is harnessing basic technology to share and to inspire others.

Advertisements

Information Format – A cautionary note from James Madison

Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1814 the President of the United States was James Madison. Technologically deprived as Madison was, he managed to leave an indelible mark on the new nation’s thinking about open government.    Reflect for a moment on these prescient snippets:

In an 1825 letter to his colleague George Thomas Madison wrote the words that every open government advocate can quote from memory:

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

Not so well known are Madison’s thoughts on information format buried as Number 62 in the Federalist Papers:

It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood

Even as I embrace the former, in this digital era I am increasingly concerned about the latter.  There is a mighty chasm between that which is available and that which is accessible to “a people who mean to be their own Governors.”

My concern is that the wealth of information by and about the government is in danger of being walled off simply because it is produced in a format that is not readily accessible to the public.  Though the agencies will continue to do the research and post the results, those of us who need the information will not have ready access.  Though government information cannot be copyrighted the possibility remains that it can be withheld by the technology which, powerful as it may be, remains out of reach until the information is “translated” – at a cost – by commercial interests.

It’s a case of the law lagging behind the technology while the private sector is ever at the ready to seize the moment.  Essential information by and about the government, collected, organized, and interpreted by the government, belongs to the body politic.  If those resources “be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood,” we the people are no longer able to arm ourselves with ”the the power which knowledge gives.”

After two centuries, the words and wisdom of President James Madison, now available in the format du jour, raise a cautionary note for open government advocates for whom constant vigilance is a way of life.

Poker On the Move – A Personal Note

The practice of “poking around” places few restrictions on one with a propensity to poke and tell.  Every story, neighborhood, artifice or artifact is grist for one who pokes for sport.  Readers of this blog will not be surprised, then, to learn that this poker’s poking purview is expanding.

As of November 15 I have taken a position of “outreach coordinator” at OpenTheGovernment.org, a vibrant coalition of nonprofit organizations who hold to the principle of “constant vigilance” as the price paid to preserve a democratic  people’s right to know.  The coalition includes a broad range of organizations, each with a different slant on the common challenge.  Specifically, OTG partners join forces to hold government accountable, ensure and improve access to Information, reform national security secrecy, protect civil liberties, and open state and local government.  Just the sort of messages for which I am proud to “outreach” –particularly now, when all of the open government balls seem to be hovering in mid air!

So, I will be reaching out from the G Street offices of OTG for several days each month, NE Minneapolis for much of the time, and commuting between the two with iPad in lap and phone in hand.

Though there is some adjustment underway just now, I’ll  will continue to poke around, henceforth with energy that comes from the sure knowledge that poking around is the true path to learning – and that sharing the pokes with intrepid readers makes the facts and stories come alive for all concerned.

 

Re-thinking the public’s right to know vs. the public’s right to privacy

American democracy is a conspiracy of special interests against the general interest, but every special interest thinks that it is the general interest.  Michael Kinsley, Washington Post, February 20, 2005.

Media attention to open government issues has always tended to veer toward getting the interviews and opening the books when the spotlight is on an individual by whom or about whom information is either disclosed  or withheld.  We love to hear and talk about people more than issues or cold, inert information.  Just as important,  the tension between proponents or privacy and supporters of transparency makes good copy.

Clashes between privacy and open government are everywhere in the media these days, leaving confusion and concern on the minds of many Minnesotans.  As one of those trying to unravel the issues I recently revisited a  paper  I had filed years ago.  Entitled “Caught in the Middle: Access to State Government Records in the United Statesthe paper was presented by Richard Pearce-Moses at the Japan-U.S. Archives Seminar in May 2007.  At the time Pearce-Moses was Director of Digital Government Information at the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.  In this highly charged privacy/transparency environment, it’s worth a re-read. 

Pearce-Moses defines his basic argument at the outset: 

What is the value of archives if not to provide access to information? Why spend time and effort collecting and organizing records if no one will ever use them?  Access to information is a cornerstone of the archival profession.  At the same time, archivists recognize and respect individuals’ and corporations’ rights to privacy, as well as legal restrictions on access to records in their custody.  The irony for public archives is that, at least in English, the word public embraces two contradictory senses: the records are public, in the sense they are of the people, but they are necessarily public, as some are confidential.

He is quick to remind the reader of the clear distinction between the requirement of government to preserve the record and the lack of parallel responsibility on the part of corporations and private individuals.

The legal aspect of access Pearce-Moses defines as Protecting the Government’s Interests vs Privacy.  The practical application of the law, he notes, usually focuses on “records”, including all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics.”  The word “all”, he says, “incompasses a lot of material.”  The question itself has significant implications when it relates to states’ providing for inspection of public records.

Courts, he writes, have routinely held that access to records is subject to reasonable rules and regulations to avoid disruption of regular business.  However, the agency and the individual or organization making the request may have different ideas as to what they consider to be unreasonable disruption.

The thorny issue often lies in the area of definitions of information, records, and public records – an increasingly cloudy area that has loomed for a couple of decades. Exploding technology has become a staggering challenge to Deciders in today’s tsunami of tools that few have or take the time to consider in the longer term.

Neither bilateral nor ad hoc thinking is sufficient.  It will not suffice to tweak old models. This paper reminds me of just how essential it is for the concerned parties, including the public,  to drop the cudgels and come to grips with the fact that we must reframe the very issues of the public right to privacy and the public right to know.  The processes that protect those rights must flow from not dictate policy.

 

 

Access-More in the Breach than in the Observance

It is no surprise that virtually all of the talk to and about newly-elected officials focuses on the economy and jobs, jobs, jobs.  One undertone that is too often ignored is the ever-so-subtle issue of the public’s right to information by and about the government.  Two disparate situations bring the latest issue to the surface.  One is the approach to the electoral process evident in the openness of the recent vote count and in plans underway for a potential recount.  The Secretary of State, the election judges, the legacy and alternative press are all at the table, exposing the process and the results.  On the other hand, the doors have remained slammed on the press and public seeking information about the selection of a President for the People’s University.  It’s time to aim the spotlight at an issue too often relegated to the closet.

One basic reality is that open government enjoys a special place in history as a nonpartisan issue, articulated by the founding fathers (who disagreed about just about everything) as a fundamental tenets of the democracy.  Similarly, the State of Minnesota has a distinguished and nonpartisan history of nonpartisan support for open government and informed popular.  In spite of this proud heritage open government is currently more honored in the breach than in the observance.

To a great extent it’s change rather than malicious intent that poses the threat.

  • Because the President has positioned his administration as a vocal proponent of open access, the inclination on the part of the other party may be to turn a deaf ear.  In fact,
  • The first change is in the newness as much as the politics of newly-elected decision-makers.  Access to information is an extraordinarily complex political arena in which experience, institutional memory and practice balancing forces are not infused but shaped by time on task.  Elected officials, incoming administrators, fledgling staffers and others who forge the information chain are often new to the game, newer still to the nuances of public policy relating to information.  In the current information environment mastery of the tools far outstrips attention to policy implications of technology.
  • Second, the information chain itself is in flux bordering chaos.  The inexorable march of information and ideas from decision-maker to constituent, agency to consumer, candidate to the public is cast aside as information – and misinformation – pulsates through the “pipes”, favoring those who own and understand the tools, disenfranchising those for whom time, geography, skill, finances and other incidentals present insurmountable barriers.  Agencies live is solitary splendor while the floodgates open to horizontal flows that ignore and supercede traditional organizational structures.
  • Third, the decline of investigative journalism has had a devastating effect on an informed public.  The  journalists, print and electronic, who bore a heavy responsibility/  They served the public good by ferreting out the truth, researching the record, separating fact from fiction, poking and probing, digesting and deliberating  – then producing information that makes sense to the reader, listener or viewer .   As their ranks  twindle there is a scramble to fill the void and a desperate search for a viable replacement model able to enhance public understanding rather than drivel.
  • Fourth, though ignorance of the law may be no excuse, it nonetheless persists.  Those who need to know often do not know their rights.  Public and nonprofit agencies face critical challenges that cry out for immediate resource allocation.
  • Finally, though current laws need constant review and tweaking, the base is firm;  transparency is recognized as a basic right.  As technology presents both possibilities and pitfalls existing laws deserve review and revision.  More importantly, implementation of laws and policies requires specific attention to oversight by responsible agencies at every level.  Again, it’s one of those implicit tasks that is so basic it can be neglected in deference to issues that are more dire, more doable or more politically persuasive.

Though undeniable and non-controversial, the basics are implicit and thus overlooked:

ü      Every Minnesotan has a RIGHT TO INFORMATION  BY AND ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT.

ü      That right is stated with clarity in legislation and regulation.

ü      Responsibility for oversight is sometimes unclear, more often buried in or blurred the bureaucracy

ü      Organizations and agencies that provide services to the public have an urgent responsibility to affirm that right and to provide the tools, skills and attitudes essential to an informed citizenry.  I

ü      The priority is to affirm and internalize the fact that an understanding of access must join the roster of essentials for elected officials, bureaucracies, nonprofits, schools, communities and families.

ü      Information, alone among public goods, does not diminish but expands with use.

ü      Sound information policy, combined with attention to implementation of that policy, is not a cost but a long-term investment.

It is at our individual and political peril that we ignore the basics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open government enjoys a special place in history as a nonpartisan issue, articulated by the founding fathers as one of the fundamental tenets of the democracy.  In spite of this proud heritage open government is currently more honored in the breach than in the observance.  To a great extent it’s change rather than malicious intent that poses the threat.

The UpTake Journalists Banned in Edina!

The intrepid crew from The Uptake hit its first bump in the transparency world this week when the Edina Chamber of Commerce banned all video and audio recording from Wednesday’s debate between candidates Erik Paulsen and Jim Meffert.  Not a major hurdle for the folks from The Update who have covered and shared a daunting roster of candidate forums, debates, town meetings and more during campaign 2010.

 

When the dust settles it will be interesting to learn just how many miles they’ve covered, camera in hand – From the Clinton visit to Blaine and Obama’s U of M appearance over last weekend to La Asamblea de Derechos Civiles in South Minneapolis, Farm Fest, the rambunctious Oberstar/Cravaak debate in Duluth and scores of other sites.  The Uptake crew covers the event live if possible, then records and posts the full program on The Uptake website.  They even offer fact check back up that is endlessly illuminating.

 

Today, Tuesday, The Uptake provides live coverage of the much-vaunted debate between Michele Bachmann and Tarryl Clark taking place in St. Cloud.  The enterprising Uptakers suggest that viewers watch the debate live from home or office, then contribute the cost of the gas saved to The Uptake.

 

At this point in the campaign every Minnesotan is burned out on sound bites and TV spots well-funded by a mix of vested interests.  The would-be informed voter might do well to take a breath, settle into an easy chair, and take time to view and listen to the candidates themselves – uninterrupted, on the spot, recorded by The Uptake.

 

Follow The Uptake any way that suits your social media fancy:

Facebook

Twitter:

YouTube

Blip.TV

Livestream.com:

Tumblr

MySpace

Rummaging in the US Government’s Attic

As an inveterate rummager I take unending delight in this uber blog, a powerful if understated blog that aims to provide “fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities and fun stuff and government bloopers.”

Properly outfitted with the Freedom of Information Act a volunteer crew scavenge relentlessly in federal public documents heretofore hidden from public view.  They then post the most delicious government communications, reports and other documents on www.governmentattic.org.

For those of us who just can’t get enough, they manage a dynamic email distribution system that lights up the mailbox 2-3 times every week.  And that’s a lot of us.  The site does no marketing, is run by volunteers, and averages about 6000 unique users and 190 GB of downloads per month.

Forget the dusty holiday decorations, the kids’ broken toys, the wicker baskets and the bent spoons – go instead for some of this snippet listing of long-hidden treasures posted within the past few days on Government Attic.org.  Don’t stop here – poke around!   It’s like this EVERY week – rain or shine!  A rummage sale not to be missed but to be savored